How have ruins become so valued in Western culture, and so central to our art and literature? Covering a vast chronological and geographical range, from ancient Egyptian inscriptions to twentieth-century memorials, Susan Stewart seeks to answer this question as she traces the appeal of ruins and ruins images, and the lessons that writers and artists have drawn from their haunting forms. Stewart takes us on a sweeping journey through founding legends of broken covenants and original sin, the Christian appropriation of the classical past, myths and rituals of fertility, images of decay in early modern allegory and melancholy, and new gardens built with ancient fragments. She focuses particularly on Renaissance humanism and Romanticism as periods of intense interest in ruins that also offer new frames for their perception. And she looks in depth at the works of Goethe, Piranesi, Blake, and Wordsworth, each of whom found in ruins a means of reinventing his art. Lively and engaging, The Ruins Lesson ultimately asks what can resist ruination--and finds in the self-transforming, ever-fleeting practices of language and thought a clue to what might truly endure.